Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 25:19-34 – The Jacob Cycle

Read the text here: Genesis 25:19-34
Esau & Jacob – A Couple of Wild and Crazy Guys!
We move into a new cycle of stories with our Genesis lesson for this weekend.  Up until now we have been focused on the story of Abraham and Sarah and Abraham’s sons Ishmael and then Isaac.  This weekend we move to a new set of stories that are centered on Isaac’s sons – Esau and (especially) Jacob.  At the same time there is also a shift in the focus from God’s promise and the fulfillment of this promise – in particular the promise of being a mighty and populous nation – to the issue of blessing. 
God’s promise to Abraham in chapter 12 (repeated in chapter 16) is in three parts – 1. Abraham and Sarah would be a great and mighty nation, and in order for this to be fulfilled they would have to have at least one son, who (eventually) is born and named Isaac; 2. God will bless this people of promise freely and unconditionally; 3. All of this is so that they might be a blessing to all the peoples and nations of the world.  Throughout the Abraham cycle we see that Abraham and Sarah continually mess up, they take things into their own hands, they are unfaithful at times but yet God is faithful and God brings the promise to fulfillment.
In the Jacob cycle the focus shifts to the 2nd part of the promise – the unconditional blessings which God has promised to bestow on the heir and his progeny. It seems pretty straightforward but it is shocking that as we read this cycle of stories we see that promise #2 brings nothing but conflict and deceit.  If there is one thing that stands out in this cycle it is what a despicable human being Jacob is.  He is deceitful, underhanded and dishonest.  His dealings with his brother Esau (urged on by their mother, by the way!) are nothing short of reprehensible; the interactions with Laban are unique in that between the two of them – Laban and Jacob – we have two men who are masters at deceit, manipulation and dishonesty; Jacob’s relationship with and treatment of his first wife Leah is pretty horrible and then if that all were not bad enough as we move into the Joseph cycle we find him playing favorites with his own sons to the point that he has instigated so much hatred amongst them that 11 of them band together in order to try to murder Jacob’s favorite son – their brother!
But yet, God’s blessings are bestowed – freely and unconditionally – even upon Jacob.  Looking at this particular text and a general overview of the entire cycle there are a couple things that emerge about the issue of blessings:
1.              God’s blessings are subversive – they subvert the established social order and expectations.  In the story of the stolen blessing (chapter 27) when Rebekah and Jacob conspire to take advantage of an old, ailing and blind Isaac in order to steal the blessing away from the first born Esau, we see that the entire story in founded on the principal of “primogeniture” which mandates that the first born son inherits everything – possessions and promises from God! – and the younger son or sons get nothing.  But God shows favor to Jacob, even though Jacob is the 2nd born son – and this is not the only time in the bible where God subverts the established and expected birth order – Isaac is the 2nd born son, Joseph is somewhere down the line but not the oldest, King David is the youngest, Solomon is not the oldest son and on and on.  God is not bound by human conventions and restrictions and expectations.  God’s blessings flow freely despite the restrictions we humans want to put upon God’s blessings.
2.              God’s blessings are inclusive – Just because Jacob steals Esau’s blessing doesn’t mean that God then turns away from Esau.  God continues to be present and shower blessings upon Esau.  We might want to deny that a particular person or group of people are also beloved of God and are as blessed by God as we are – but God’s blessings cannot be contained and God does not withhold them.
3.              God’s blessings are not like life insurance – Just because one is blessed by God doesn’t mean that God will fish us out of the ups and downs and the joys and sorrows of life; Just because we are chosen and blessed by God doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen or that we are immune from suffering and loss.  Jacob suffers a lot.  Much of it is the result of his own bad decisions, but still some of his suffering comes from his painful and difficult interactions with God as well.  It is too easy and simple to equate success in life with God’s favor and blessing and failure, loss and suffering in life to God withholding God’s favor and blessing.  But it doesn’t work that way.  In our lesson next week Jacob will have a vision of God’s messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven to earth to heaven.  The message of this dream is that God is involved in human life – all of human life.  God is especially present with those who are suffering. 
4.              God’s blessings are not earned – they are given unconditionally.  Why does God choose Jacob and continue to remain with Jacob despite his terrible decisions and life choices.  Certainly Jacob would not have earned this as he does nothing whatsoever that is worthy of earning God’s favor.  He is a sinner in the full sense of the word – just like us.  We too are not able to earn our way into God’s favor; we cannot be good enough to earn God’s blessings.  But thanks be to God that God’s blessings are not based on the things that we do, or the things that we believe or the people we know or our family position or anything else.  God’s blessings are based solely and completely on God’s steadfast love – God’s unmerited and completely unconditional grace.

The audio for this sermon (which differs quite a lot from what is above) can be found at the Wartburg Parish Website

A brief outline of the Jacob cycle:
The birth of Esau and Jacob / Esau sells his birthright to Jacob – Chapter 25
Jacob (and Rebekah) steal the Isaac’s blessing from Esau. – Chapter 27
Jacob flees; Jacob’s first dream (the ladder) – Chapter 28
Jacob and Laban – Marriage to Leah and then to Rachel – Chapters 29-30
Jacob flees – in caught by Laban and they reconcile – Chapter 31
Jacob’s confrontation with Esau / Dream #2 (Jacob wrestles with God) – Chapter 32
Conclusion of the Jacob cycle – setting up the Joseph cycle – Chapters 35-36


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